Friday, May 17, 2013

Deep Space Nine, Season 3: Past Tense, Part I

 Deep Space Nine, Season 3
"Past Tense, Part I"
Airdate: January 2, 1995
56 of 173 produced
56 of 173 aired

Introduction

On a trip to Earth, a powerfully dumb transporter malfunction sends Sisko, Dax, and Bashir back in time to early 21st century San Francisco. There, they must avoid making changes to the timeline that might destroy the future world they know and love.

Jadzia wonders: has the "mickey" been invented yet?



Writing

Matthew: The time has come to ask whether or not the Roddenberry prohibition on time travel stories in the post-TOS era was a good idea. His thought was that such stories were basically invitations to cliched and lazy storytelling. The TNG writers strained to occasionally tell time travel-lite stories that did not involve straight-up transfer of main characters to past historical locales. Their efforts resulted in stories like "Yesterday's Enterprise," "Parallels," "A Matter of Time," "All Good Thimgs," "Time Squared," and "Captain's Holiday." All were original takes on old tropes. "Time's Arrow" was the only truly straight-up time travel tale in that series. So now we have DS9's first foray into time travel, and... wow. It sure looks like Roddenberry was right. First off, we get an utterly terrible explanation for the time travel. The cloaking device on the Defiant deposits chroniton particles onto the hull, or something, which makes the transporter send people back in time. Ugh. In addition to melding two of the most abused tropes (the other being transporter malfunctions),the explanation given offers an easily replicable method for time travel, which would fundamentally alter the Trek universe. It also raises all sorts of stupid questions, such as: Do Romulans travel through time regularly, then? The fact that it happens by accident really diminishes my interest. Something like "First Contact" has a villain traveling in time specifically to cause harm to the Federation. "City on Edge of Forever" makes the time travel device an artifact of an unspeakably old and powerful civilization. This story just makes it dumb. It's dumb that no one noticed this huge buildup of particles in the first place. The other stupid cliche that I absolutely hate in this story is execution of the "someone has changed the past" idea. The present time frame doesn't change at all until we watch the climactic scene in the past in which person X is killed. Whaaa? The change happened nearly 400 years in the past. Why would it not propagate immediately upon the occurrence of the wayward transporter beam? When TOS gets it right and you don't, you've got problems. Also, if Sisko was always going to take Bell's place, why did the future ever change at all? Basically, it was a pointless addition to the story that did nothing to increase drama, and only raised irritating questions. The third cliche involved is the "everything has changed but us for some reason" trope. Yawn. Look, any one of these tropes might be permissible in a story that is otherwise well told. But all three? We'd better be looking at freaking Shakespeare in order to overcome this. (Spoiler: We're not.)

Kevin: Yeah, if two normally used devices can cause this problem, it's way too easy to replicate. Sure, you can Warp 10 around a star, but that's always portrayed as a sufficiently difficult task to prevent it from being used casually. I also hate hate hate when other timelines line up narratively. It makes no sense. All of the past and all of the future has already happened from a time-travel perspective. I would have preferred we stay in the past. The additional scenes on the Defiant did nothing to increase the drama or explain the story. Absent the technobabble on the ship, I could have more easily dismissed the mechanics of the time travel as merely the setup of the episode without it feeling stupid. Hell, they could have just started the episode with them waking up in 2024 San Francisco with no explanation.

Matthew: OK, enough about time travel. The dystopian 2024 depicted here seems like, and you'll have to excuse me... Obamacare Run Amok! We've got National ID cards, homeless ghettos that anyone can be thrown into without due process (and how did regular people ever get put into the districts, anyway? Was it a con job? Were they dragged there bodily?), food rationing, Federal Job Acts, labyrinthine bureaucracy, and shotgun toting jackbooted thugs. Seems like everything Fox News has been warning us of since 2008. Also, according to the calendar shown on screen, by 2024 the US is on the metric system. Coincidence?!?!? I think not. 15 degrees? WTF is that? We're through the looking glass, here, people. Anyway, the basic thesis here seems to be that "addressing social problems" was key to creation of Starfleet and Federation. This seems to be belied by First Contact and other TOS continuity regarding WWIII. The setup also leads to some pretty atrocious dialogue. Bashir's attitude is hopelessly naive. We 21st century slobs don't solve our problems because we've forgotten how to care, he avers, not because they're actually the intractably difficult problems of an economic order based on scarcity and identity politics. Sisko feeds into it, saying, "eventually, people in this century will remember how to care." Give me a break. Someone is being insulted here, and I think unfairly. For all their myriad faults (and oh, they are myriad...), I think Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan care just as much as Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi.

Kevin: It's funny, my first thought on viewing was that the lesson was that this was capitalism run amok, not the opposite. I mean, it's not liberals who think everyone should have to prove who they are at all times. The expanded social programs were just a band-aid on the broader social problems of a society that was too materialistic. But I do certainly agree with your point that summing it all up as "not caring" is too trite and too stupid. I think the more nuanced point to make is that people in Star Trek's universe learn to care about others even if those people are different or if their experience has no direct relationship to their own. I got into this debate recently when Sen. Portman of Ohio's son came out, and magically the senator changed his mind on marriage equality. I shouldn't have to wait for everyone in power to suffer the effect of discrimination directly before they realize it's a problem. A citizen of the Federation would not need to know a gay person to care about marriage equality. I think that would have been a far less preachy point. Everyone, certainly in the abstract, cares about people and their problems, but in practical terms, we're willing to make sacrifices and changes only when the people we care about the most personally are being affected. I also think there was a far more subtle way to demonstrate the social problem without the Sanctuary Districts. Over the last several years, there have been several attempts by municipalities of various sizes to combat homelessness by simply removing the homeless, like more broad vagrancy or panhandling laws or banning charitable groups from giving out food or clothes without a permit, all in the name of "protecting" people or, more frequently, business. There are more subtle and more real ways to show the very real problem of the de facto criminalization of poverty, and that would have led to a less leaden episode and a better point. It's worth mentioning that according to Memory Alpha, there's an LA Times article that came out at about the same time proposing essentially the same idea, of a fenced off "haven" for homeless people to make the area more business-friendly. Overall, it's not the message, it's the heavy-handedness of it. There was a way to show that apathy or ignorance had led people with good intentions down this road without making it seem like the only problem was the callousness of the rest of the world.

Matthew: Apparently, Kevin, the original story pitch was Sisko traveling through time and being treated as a mentally ill homeless person in the past. That idea is way more interesting, and subtle, as you say. Anyhow, as cliche as they might be, time travel stories that take us to the present of the viewer are much less problematic than those that take us to our own near future. Case in point: the laughable, horribly dated portrayal of the internet and the PC technology involved. Touch pens? Access terminals and ID cards? Channel 90? Land line telephones? Wow. Frankly, I wonder if this shows just a bit of laziness and lacking foresight on the parts of the creative staff. I'm not saying we should have seen a fully functional iPhone 12s. But at least some respect for the trends of miniaturization and portability probably should have been expected. On the other hand, the tattoo joke was pretty prescient.

Kevin: The computer screens and the idea of "channels" still being the primary way information was divided in media was hilarious. What got me was the aesthetics. Everything looked so blocky and pixelated. Even by 1994, Windows 3.1 looked prettier than that stuff. It didn't look like the future even in the past. And the touch pens never made sense. We had laptops with trackpads then, right? Right?

Matthew: We had mice, and I think laptops had rollerballs and possibly the eraser-head things. OK. As a plot, and not considering its cheesy or cliche aspects, I was reasonably involved in the twists and turns that our characters on the planet went through. The division of Dax from Sisko and Bashir gave us a look at two different strata of society, which was at least interesting. Sisko and Bashir's experiences in the bureaucracy and with bullying street toughs could be identified with by a viewer, and gave us chances to root for them. On the other hand, the main characters aboard ship were tasked with delivering some atrocious dialogue, about particles, tech, energy fields, and all manner of claptrap. It was annoying to hear, and the actors, who we'll mention below, looked as though they hated delivering it as much as I did viewing it.

Kevin: Speaking as someone who works on behalf of people in bad situations and has to interact with other private and governmental service providers, the tone they struck with the bureaucracy and the bureaucrat herself was pitch perfect. There was a sense that the lines and platitudes had been said countless times before and that no one really thought they could make a difference anymore. Scenes like the one when Bashir and Sisko got processed by the caseworker were great, if not a little artificially expository, but it shows the idea has some legs, it just got bogged down in a naive execution.

Matthew: One thing I've never seen addressed in an instantaneous time travel story is the question of the relative motion of stars and planets. Where was the earth 400 years prior to the transport? Why did they end up in San Francisco, and not dead in the vacuum of space?

Acting

Matthew: This was a pretty good show for all three of our earthbound characters. Look - Siddig El Fadil did not have great dialogue to work with in some of his windier expositions. But generally, he portrayed the shocked child of privilege pretty well. Avery Brooks slipped into tough guy mode pretty well, without a lot of gratuitous overacting. Terry Farrell probably had the best stuff in this episode. She got to be sly and adjusted to her new surroundings immediately, in almost Kirkian fashion. She also got to play coy with her rescuer, and was able to skewer the pretensions of the high society types in various scenes.

Kevin: I really enjoyed watching Dax effortlessly slip into playing along. It makes the character seem really on the ball and quick on her feet. In past episodes, she seems to do the best when she can show some life, so giving her the party scenes to navigate seem the most fun. I agree that Avery Brooks played it exactly the right way, toning down his performance. And I almost liked Bashir this time around. At least he didn't fall in love with a resident.

Matthew: The rest of the main cast did not fare as well. Nana Visitor and Rene Auberjonois looked as if they had been asked to emote while reading out of a phone book or some stereo instructions most of the time - bored, annoyed, and uncomfortable. Colm Meaney did somewhat better, probably because the O'Brien character was the one offering the answers, instead of asking the stupid questions. It's kind of sad that one of the best turns in the show was Armin Shimerman's, which had nothing to do with the main story.

Kevin: Yeah, there just isn't a lot of there there. Their scenes felt like filler because they were filler. Maybe it would have been fun for one of them to be on Earth as well. Both have only ever encountered the Federation as a resource-rich entity, and tend to be a little dismissive of their happy-go-lucky attitude as a result. It could have been fun to see their history through their eyes. On a side note, I really did like Colm Meany's delivery of the lines about why he never became an officer.

Matthew: The guest cast was pretty solid. Jim Metzler was suitably effete as Brynner, while Frank Military (!) really inhabited the role of the ghost leader B.C. Tina Lifford was pretty terrific as the harried bureaucrat. I think Bill Smitrovich did a pretty good job making Webb an everyman pushed to the edge by circumstance. The only one that really got on my nerves was Dick Miller as Vin. I kind of hated his guts. Now, I suppose this was part of the role. But he did it a little too well.

Kevin: I really want to single out Lifford for praise. I swear I talk to her or someone eerily like her a half dozen times a week, and occasionally I hear myself in her recitation of the rules and requirements of the Sanctuary. She really portrayed caring but overworked really well. I have to agree with you on Vin. I just wanted to punch him.


Production Values


Matthew: The past scenes in general had a really rich, textured look and feel. The use of the backlot (I assume it was a backlot) was really effective. There were loads of extras all decked out in appropriately homeless-looking clothing. Really, the only sore spot production-wise for the past were the aforementioned awful-looking computers.

Kevin: On rewatch, the screens reminded me totally of Babylon 5 computer graphics, and I wasn't a fan of those either. I did like whatever "generic New York" set they were on, and I really have to compliment them not just on the number of extras, the sense of scale the place had. It really felt like a square mile or more.

Matthew: The fashion in the past was OK. It looked wearable, and the angle bowtie thing was recognizable while still being "other." I do think the fashion was too ubiquitous. How was it that everyone in high society all had the same stiff suit jacket, while all of the Sanctuary residents looked like they had just come from Construction Outfitters? I do applaud the notion of putting the women in suits just like the men, though.

Kevin: It's a hard thing to balance, and I understand why they resisted it, but there should have been more actual clothes from the 90s, or at leas 90s-inspired in there. The costume designer on Mad Men is a master at this, but she doesn't dress everyone in 1960 in clothes made in 1960. Characters wear the clothes and drive the cars they had for years up to that point. I'm not saying I should see a Nirvana t-shirt per se, and the thirty year gap would have been a bit much for straight up 90s clothes, but it's a tendency in doing any kind of period piece to make everyone wear just the clothes of that period, not before.

Matthew: The ship shots of the Defiant against the Earth backdrop were pretty good as a rule, with a few bad standouts showing jagged edges and artificiality. I like the look we got of the transporter... nook. It was a neat design. Practical? No. But it looked neat.

Kevin: I really liked the shot of the moon in the opening sequence. They've really come a long way with their planet work.


Conclusion

Matthew: This is between a 1 and a 2 for me. The setup was just so dumb, and the dialogue veered into preachiness. But I couldn't help but be marginally entertained for the better part of this episode. Tropes are tropes for a reason. They tend to work, even as they tend to annoy. The episode ended on a decent cliffhanger, and I wanted to know what happened next. That sounds like a redeeming element to me, which makes it a 2.

Kevin: I agree with the two for a total of 4. The episode just has a pacing problem because of all the moralizing and the setup is distractingly silly. A few highlights save it from being "bad" but it still certainly isn't "good."

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